IMO: Welcome to My World

There’s a part of me that feels like I’ve cast myself into the tundra, face first into the arctic blast, alone, as I now live inside my head, writing and editing this second novel. On one hand, that’s how much I miss blogging. Denying myself the fun of sharing thoughts about films, culture, books, and camera angles from my side of the world. Who knew your cheery comments and fun conversations would come to mean so much?

The maudlin side of me put aside, like a stashed cigarette secretly smoked, I have secretly read your posts but haven’t commented, but you all seem fine and well.

Das Buch:   Weimar Germany and the depravity of Berlin. The cabarets, the darkness of sin, drugs, and Bessie Smith. Poor George Hero, my anti-hero bordering on an unreliable narrator, has had a rough time of it since WWI.  I’ve been listening to Philip Glass while I write, and I am glad to report this first part of the novel is completed because Philip Glass wears on my nerves and depresses me, but he seems perfect for putting me in the right mood to represent the dark. In contrast, as if emerging from a cave at noon, the next part of the novel takes place in good ‘ole sunny Arizona. Sally is the feisty young copper cutie, a dancer, who dreams of becoming a Ziegfield girl and star on the Hollywood stage.  She will need her chutzpah to survive the invasive force of her mother. She is cast as an extra in a western. She is determined to become indispensable and befriends Zane Grey and Gary Cooper.  She has a needy friendship with Kay the Hopi Indian, who is a chameleon, sometimes seen as female, sometimes as male, sometimes as Apache, and sometimes she hears the whispers of her mother and sisters wanting her to remember the Hopi way. Meanwhile, she is the recipient of the elaborate gold-plated pistol, hollowed and filled, with the means by which she can free herself from her past, present and have a say about any sort of future. To what extreme will George reclaim the pistol from Kay?

As teacher:  After 18 years, I am counting down the final eight so I can retire. I know it’s a sin to wish your life away–just the working part of it. It’s hard not to this time of year. Spring is the time the drama begins. The school year is drawing to a close. State testing has students restless and apathetic.  Juniors are applying to colleges and seniors have emotionally left high school and await graduation. Teachers are tired and resigned what they are trying to sell in the classroom no one is buying. Teachers compete with students’ cell phones, the prom, sport team demands, and being a cast member in the musical. Is it any wonder they don’t care about John F. Kennedy’s involvement in the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and Civil Rights? Gee, if I can’t get them interested in the volatile sixties, this last month of school could be tortuous.

Meanwhile, teachers are grumbling because the new superintendent has shaken things up. The master schedule’s modifications include removing classes with lower sizes to make it equitable across the board. (If one teacher has class sizes of 30 and another only 12, is that fair?)  That means cutting out the advanced and elective classes. Personally, this means all the classes I love teaching have been taken away from me. The gems like AP US History, AP World History, and a big sting, my Holocaust Studies/Recent World History class. Gems because teaching college level courses are the perfect fit for me. I have been struggling with my pride over it. Be a team player. You are a cog in the wheel. Get over yourself. Readjust your attitude. It still hurts, though.

The Vikings and Nationals Baseball: Strangely, I’ve taken a break from watching movies. I’m binging on the television series by the History Channel via Amazon called The Vikings. Man, I love it. When I come home from work, after watering the flowers, one or two episodes with a beer or glass of wine is a great way to relax before starting supper. I’m on series three. I like the monk Athelstan (George Blagden) the best because rarely in films or television do you see the importance of the role of the monk in history, in this case, by preserving the scrolls of Roman England. I’ve been to Ireland and have seen The Book of Kells and love the artistry of the monks’ calligraphy. The character Athelstan straddles the conflict between pagan/Christian religion. Michael Hirst who wrote the series includes Old English and Scandinavian languages when the two worlds collide; it’s delicious to hear the languages spoken.

The culture of the Vikings is complicated. The legends and mythologies have fascinated many for years.

http://www.history.com/shows/vikings/pages/vikings-historians-view

When I’m not watching The Vikings, I am watching the Nationals play baseball. We are off to a great start this year by leading the NL East with 10 wins and 5 losses (.667). My favorite players are Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy. They bat 3, 4 respectively, and the two are hitting powerhouses. Like Lennon and McCartney, their competitiveness inspires the other to do better. Go Nats!

Books: I’m reading Paula McClain’The Paris Wife. It’s about Hadley, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife and their time in Paris during the 1920s. Ernest is trying to become an author and I can’t help but pretend we two are trying to accomplish the same goal. Except he doesn’t have to go and teach teenagers every day. He gets to sit in a Paris cafe and drink all day long while he writes. It didn’t go so well for him in the end, did it? Who knew my students would save me in the end? Ha!

Okay, bye again. Back to the novel.

Love & Friendship,

Cindy

IMO: Stuck in the Van with Zealots

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In my opinion, I would rather clean my oven and scrub the toilets than travel ninety minutes each way in a van with outspoken colleagues to attend a professional conference. My nickname is Switzerland because I abhor confrontation and prefer to remain neutral over most topics. I am surrounded by two loud alpha females: one who is passionately a feminist (Sally), while the other is a supercilious Democrat (June). The stoic, older intellectual (Martha) is a Buddhist and a socialist who esteems animals higher than humans; she has a general disregard for Americans. So much so that when she travels, she speaks other languages to avoid being labeled American. Finally, there in the back of the van, the gentle, calculus teacher and coach (Phil), pretends to take a nap. He’s not married.

At least I got to drive which kept me busy. Tired of listening to an hour of extreme opinions, negative attitudes, and the general flush from the two super-fans of Hillary Clinton, I attempted to steer the conversation away from the upcoming election. Let’s talk shop. June prides herself as a senior faculty leader who name-drops her school board friends and is privy to inside information behind administrator’s doors.  I threw out a conversation starter. “How does everyone like our interim superintendent? Do you think he will become our new principal? Who knows of his plans?” There began an eruption of groans and a clamor of disapproval. June assured me there was no way the board would let him stay after his temporary contract was over.

Sally gasped, “Can you believe he initiated the pledge of allegiance back into the classroom?”

I raised my fist with approval.  “I think it’s great. I was surprised when I first moved to Arizona that we didn’t lead the school day with the Pledge. It’s about time!”

Sally and June looked at me with raised eyebrows. June knows I am a Navy veteran. She said casually, “Oh, that’s just the military side of you talking.”

“I don’t do it in my classroom,” said Sally. June agreed. “It’s propaganda. It’s brainwashing.”

I steamed. “I make my kids stand up and say it.”

“You shouldn’t make them.”

I tried to remain calm. “So many have sacrificed their lives for us to enjoy our freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights.”

Sally smacked her thigh. “Precisely why I don’t say it. Free speech. I don’t have to say the pledge just because I’m told to. It’s my right. I don’t pledge my loyalty to the United States of America.”

“But why wouldn’t you want to?”

“This country is fucked up.”

 It was the first time I had a conversation with this new teacher. She talked about leaving AZ and going back to Washington at the end of her annual contract. She aroused in me dark thoughts and mean wishes. I looked at Sally with one eye. My hands were shaking.  “I teach Holocaust Studies and U.S. History. I’m well aware that nationalism is the downfall of the twentieth century. Propaganda, taken too far is dangerous. But how we see ourselves is connected to the values our society believes in. In America, that means rugged determinism. Hard work. Serving others. Going after dreams. Reinventing ourselves when we fail. Perseverance. My national identity is wrapped around a creed that aims to create solidarity. Another creed I identify with is the Apostles Creed.”  It comforts me to identify myself with my country and my God. These creeds are guidelines, reminders of my history, and they define me.

Feel free to be disgruntled with your government, but love your country. I see high school students who don’t know what to believe. All they hear is noise and they stumble around looking like zombies trying to figure out their identities. Understanding why the United States is a great country with an awesome history is a start, and why I love my job. A national identity is a great start. Without loyalty, integrity slips away. Without loyalty to your country, we are loyal to ourselves and such self-absorption halts the growth of communities. That’s where individuals make the biggest impact in their country.

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Why should we pledge ourselves to the flag?

I’ve known women who have lost husbands, sons, and daughters to wars. That folded flag at a funeral is a thank you. A thank you for serving and protecting my freedoms. When I pledge the allegiance to the flag, I see the Revolutionary War. Those were true patriots who died for the principals of freedom. They died for an idea.

I see in the stars and stripes the battle of the Civil War. Northern and Southern soldiers chose to protect the union or were willing to die to protect their land and an ideology. They believed in their principles, and that made them patriots.

In the 20th Century, while late in entering both World Wars, the U.S. aided and served with the Allies to stop dictatorships and uphold democratic ideals. Soldiers died so that their children and grandchildren (us) would enjoy free speech and the right to pursue their dreams. The American flag took a beating after that. Citizens grew angry and unhappy with their country. The Vietnam War was a mess with soldiers who didn’t want to fight in an unwinnable war. But they did go and serve. Civilians started burning the flag. Reagan came along, and as a Teflon President, his strong appearance helped convince Gorbechov they could end the Cold War.

Now all seems like chaos. Special interest groups covet. Desert Storm. Afghanistan. Iraq. Taliban. Isis. It’s a muddled mess with drones and ultra-technology. Now others hate America.  It’s a colossal mess, and I certainly don’t have answers. I can’t imagine any President would want to inherit it all. It’s understandable that people are angry and lost and care little for the U.S. flag. The rise of ex-pats leaving the USA is growing. Okay, go then, if you are consumed with hatred and feel hopeless.

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What I do believe, when I say the Pledge of the Allegiance, is I’m thankful for the original soldiers who fought for an idea. Their strength of character inspires me. I strive for my accomplishments. I earn them. The flag symbolizes the American Spirit which I stress in class. Through hard work and determinism, anyone can strive for a better life. I pledge my allegiance to the flag because chaos from the past offers us a balancing stick to cross the tightrope of chaos today. To me, it is an insult, a dishonor not to say The Pledge of Allegiance.

I still don’t know who I’m voting for on Tuesday.

Violence and Valentine’s Day

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The Accolade by Edmund Leighton, 1901

I teach U.S. History, World History, Holocaust Studies, and Recent World History. IT is heavy.  I read scholarly books and novels about it. I watch documentaries and films about it. I attend conferences, create stories, and talk to colleagues about it. With my students, we analyze it day after day, month after month, year after year. And IT has me going home after work saturated with the stain of violence and its result–despair, atrocity, and the knowledge that history repeats itself, much like my day. Sometimes it takes hours for the fog of history to dissipate.

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The Parthenon, Athens

To clarify, I love my job. I feel I owe Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gandhi, Martin Luther, the Greeks, Cyrus the Great, the Mayans, and Lucy my best efforts to pass along their stories to each class, trying to inspire. If students explore humanity’s great achievements, they need to examine wars, dictators, and perverted power, for if they learn how to empathize and evaluate the past, history becomes important, and they won’t forget. One day history will stop repeating itself. Right?

I went home and Gone Girl greeted me right at the part when character Amy Dunne slit the throat of Desi Collings and swam in the results. I thought about her as the new psychopath, a female Hannibal Lector. I wondered if Alfred Hitchcock were alive and working today, would he like this new psycho? Would he be as gruesome as modern filmmakers who show the realism of murder, disaster, and mayhem? These were my thoughts during dinner. Next came the news. Only the horrible is reported, and I turned off the television and went to read. I opened the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist, Phillipp Meyer’s, The Son. It’s an epic western, and after a few pages of prologue, the story began with a Comanche attack of the protagonist’s homestead in Texas. Thus began the assault of the family members. Breasts were cut off, heads were scalped. The writing is fine, but the violence–after a day of IT, I threw the book across the room. It’s likely an excellent historical fiction novel. I’ve reclaimed it from the corner because as a writer, I’m interested how Meyer created the historical climate. It’s not his fault life was violent for all concerned in the 1800s. Violence is the human constant since we drew the hunt on cave walls.

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I was one of those who scoffed at Valentine’s Day. The isles of pink and red. Ugly balloons and cards with expectations one must romance and love. Today.

But now, I’m starting to reconsider Valentine’s Day. I find I do need to be prodded to be extra-sweet to those I care about. I want to crack the unsentimental shell hardened by my daily dose of history. I need to let the gooey-goodness of life spill out.  I bought my students heart-shaped doughnuts, and they became well-behaved angels. We continued our discussion whether FDR’s New Deal was a conservative or radical experiment. They wanted to rush on to the exciting stuff–World War II.  Oh boy. Total War. Won’t that be fun. 

On Valentine’s Day, I vow to take a break from IT.  I will watch charming films, count my blessings, and pray for world peace.

Frozen Moments with David Foster Wallace

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Once I knew a shy man, a brilliant man, who wooed the literary world. I was his creative writing student at Illinois State University in the mid-nineties. He was the weird writer/professor just featured in Time, with the red bandana and Lennon glasses, messy hair and shredded jeans, clunky boots and lumberjack shirts–this was the new Hemingway or stylistically, the new Thomas Pynchon. David looked like he belonged in the band Nirvana than the guest of honor at élite literary cocktail parties. He was about to release his Dystopian masterpiece, Infinite Jest.  In hindsight, the five-month experience of sitting next to brilliance (everyone said so) has become a soul-file pressed within futuristic glass, those images and sounds felt by me as if alive, caught within the glass, safeguarding his pursed expressions, the dry one-liners, and the scratching scribbles when his black-ink pen edited my work. Then there was that two-sentence tag line, his judgment of me as a writer before I was expelled out of his universe and another semester began. His judgment of me labels the soul-file, a tattoo, and nudges me to keep writing.

During the spring semester of 1996, once a week we met as a class for a few hours in a giant circle. He’d cross an ankle over a knee, and it bobbed while we took turns reading our work, dissecting the good, the bad, and the ugly. He was a contradiction of quiet consideration and passionate outbursts with a brain that swirled so fast his mouth couldn’t keep up with it. He’d close his eyes and they would roll behind the lids; he would tell himself to relax, to calm down, as if he attended a yoga class for one, and the Buddha tapped him on the head and reminded him,  “Breathe, David, breathe. Only an hour left and then you can escape the fluorescent lit room and the thirty undergrads who stare at you and wait for you to say something brilliant.” I imagine David Foster Wallace answered the Buddha, “If you call me brilliant one more time, I’ll–”

I ran across the following interview from 1997 and chuckled as he scoffed about the profession of teaching in higher education. He suggested after a few years, a teacher loses that magic, a relevance to offer students. That included my semester with him as a student.

David, you missed an important point about teaching. The impact of inspiration. You felt uninspired or inadequate as a teacher, but as a student, I gobbled up every expression, every leg crossing, every eye twitch, every utterance of advice like golden nuggets of wisdom. I wrote constantly. I thought about the craft of it, the art of it. I tried hard to shape words into images you would be proud of. Sycophant? Stalker? No. I kept a respectful distance. I had the sense to know how lucky I was that he was my teacher, and I was his student.

I’m almost twenty years older. You moved on, of course, and left ISU. You taught in California, wrote, became famous and then hung yourself in your garage in 2008. I was saddened but not shocked to hear the news. I speculated the voices in your head screamed instead of whispered or that your Buddha booked. Was it hard to be brilliant? I had never been David Foster Wallace’s friend or neighbor or lover or knew anything about him except as a teacher and his words in stories I tried to understand.

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The two sentence tag-line came about from a page of editing he did to an assignment of mine. Two desperadoes, a father and daughter, arrived penniless to an insignificant town, and the car lost control and crashed through the entrance door of a Motel 6. The particle board paneling splintered over the olive shag carpeting.  Anyway, he had crossed out, underlined, and ravaged my opening scene, drew an angry face here and smiley face there and then at the bottom, loudly proclaimed, “You have talent, but your grammar sucks.”

On Friday, the day of spring break, he assigned to me his mother’s grammar book. She was at a nearby community college and had written Practically Painless English. He told me to “Do every assignment. The entire book.”  I did.

I have learned that reading good writing helps you write well. I’ve learned that it’s important to review the grammar book, especially if you are a teacher, to combat the exposure to bad writing.

It’s the “You have talent” part I like to remember. If David Foster Wallace thought so, Wow!  It helps, when I’m in the dark and bludgeon myself with doubts. Inspiration is a great gift. Thanks, David.

What? You’ve never read anything by him? Try out this short story published in The New Yorker. Good luck keeping up with him.   DFW New Yorker “Backbone”

RIP

WWII: Nazism

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Demonize the enemy–a trick of propaganda. Even beloved icons are guilty of it like Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney. Dr. Seuss was a prolific political activist during WWII and created hundreds of political cartoons for New York newspaper PM (1940-1948). He criticized the U.S. for its lethargy for entering the war. He criticized racist, anti-black labor practices in U.S. industries. He criticized regimes in general. His anti-Japanese caricatures prompted an apology later with Horton Hears a Who Atlantic Monthly, Seuss Takes on Hitler. I invite you to explore the University of California San Diego library which features Dr. Seuss’s political cartoons.  UCSD Dr. Seuss Goes to War Special Collections

This ten minute Walt Disney film parodied and simplified the complex issue of Germans embracing Nazism. Mixing facts with hasty generalizations, the format of the cartoon made it easier to swallow in the guise of education.

In history class the other day, students annotated a scholarly article for homework. I selected a half-dozen to lead a discussion. At the end of the article, students were asked to answer several questions. Susie, one of my “very” students–very dedicated, very charming, very smart, very ambitious–confidently described the article. Then it came time to share the answers at the end of the article. I told the class to listen to their peer leaders and fill in any gaps they had missed. It they didn’t have the answer, now was a good time to get the information.

Outraged, Susie yelled, “Why should I tell them the answers? I stayed up late last night to prepare for today. Why would I help out those who didn’t bother to do it? That’s not fair!”

Red warning flags flapped. Ghosts from the Holocaust nudged me to handle her outburst promptly. No, Susie is not a Nazi, but her attitude reeked of it.

Many know the secret of manipulation lies in the power of propaganda; nations around the world used it to influence their citizens in WWI and WWII. For example, you might have heard of the George Creel Committee established during WWI to create propaganda posters to persuade the nation to enter the war. Eugenics was a global phenomenon, and a philosophy embraced in the 19th and 20th centuries for establishing a racial superiority.   NARA power of persuasion  Propaganda sets up an elitist, “It’s us against them” hierarchy. Propaganda simplifies complex issues and fosters a black and white mentality. Propaganda is a biased attempt to persuade and shape public opinion.

“The real danger of propaganda lies when competing voices are silenced –and unchecked, propaganda can have negative consequences.” United States Holocaust Museum

An interesting aspect of Nazism was the expectations placed on women. Wife/mother schools accepted Arian pure bloods and encouraged athleticism. Healthy mothers were essential for producing a brood of Nordic-looking children. The Fatherland rewarded you with a house and accolades. The opportunity for financial stability and affirmation enticed many women in Nazi Germany.

Women of Nazi Germany, was a British documentary produced by Dunja Noack and directed by Cate Haste and first broadcast in 2001. Surviving SS and Nazi women gave their historical account including Hitler’s last personal secretary, Traudl Junge. She was a principal character played by Alexandra Lara in the critically acclaimed film, Downfall (2004).

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Bruno Ganz gave an electrifying performance. It was a film that succeeded in showing the cult of Adolf Hitler. The extent to which Mrs. Goebbels honored the Fatherland and Hitler chilled me to the bone. Hitler’s perverse ambition to create an Aryan, 1000-year-old German Reich ruined countries and murdered millions. Similarly, in the Pacific Theater, the Japanese emperor demanded absolute obedience from all citizens. Both countries expected the great sacrifice–death than defeat to the Allies. WWII baffles my mind. It always depresses me.

Back to Susie.

In my opinion,  when one meets a new person, the mind clicks “yes”, “maybe”, or “no” with a snap decision. Take that impulse and what will you do with it? If you listen to the influences of your culture, it will shape that first impulse. I think humans are malleable. We want to feel accepted and loved, and we succumb to instant gratification–that is, we feel first and think later. Generally speaking. An ideal, a better way of life, a promise–these are the instruments of the demon as well as the angel.

Who knows why some of her classmates didn’t do their homework? There have been good and bad excuses since there have been students and teachers. When Susie felt contempt for her classmates, when she felt superior and brazenly rejected them, I felt fear. People weren’t born Nazis. It took years to cultivate that hateful ideology. Susie was not racially but intellectually contemptuous. Still, once one starts believing they are better than another, it’s a dangerous journey. Intolerance and malignity are ingredients; if fed, they grow into a cancer.

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I told Susie she would feel satisfaction if she shared her strengths with her classmates. Her “very” gifts gave her an advantage; she was certain to become a leader. I told her true leaders embrace compassion, not contempt. I don’t know if she heard me, but I hope so on behalf of the multi-millions who had no voice in WWII and perished because of malignity and intoleration.

Four Life Principles: Thanks, Eleanor Roosevelt


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At the request of my school, I gave a speech today. My audience included parents, students, and community members at an assembly, and Eleanor Roosevelt stood by my side and helped me through it. Are you are feeling lowly today? Maybe a reminder is all you need. Let her wisdom lift you. Here was what I said:

Thank you, school board members, administrators, students, and the faculty for whom I represent for allowing me to address you today. I’d like to begin with a quote given by First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who advocated for human rights and became an essential advisor for her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

She said, “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”

Whenever I face an anxious situation, like speaking on this stage in front of you, I like to pretend Eleanor is standing next to me. Her maxims are great ideas, life principles to follow, and there are four I’d like to share.

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1. Goal Oriented 

“I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday.”

Come up with a strategy. Then try it. Students, today you are commended for improving your grade point average over the course of a semester or a year. You are here today because you tried. Creating a goal is the first step. To execute the strategy requires focus. Remember, you are not competing against the person next to you. You are in a marathon race with yourself and your success first depends on a course of action.

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2. Self-Reflection

“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t possibly make them all yourself.”

How did your strategy work? What can I do differently to achieve a better result? Life is about tweaking, modifying, and scheduling your time. If you manage your time well, efficiency will catapult your goals and results easier to achieve. Ever notice how true experts, athletes, and artists make it look so easy? It’s because they are efficient, focused, and tweaked their “performance” over time.

You change. Don’t be passive. Don’t wait for someone to suggest what you should do. This is your education, your life. Decide what worked and what didn’t; create a new strategy and try again. It is all about you.

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3. Be Positive

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

This is the hardest principle to live by and it truly makes all the difference, for it is a choice, happiness, and it starts with positive thinking.

Insecurity. Fear. Labels others give you. Mountains to climb, Hardships. Loneliness. These are your companions for the rest of your life. What helps you achieve your goals, your dreams, is your attitude. Avoid succumbing to the negative by discovering strategies for dealing with these sap-sucking companions. People surround you who want to help you bypass your obstacles. Seek out the advice from those who have succeeded. You are never alone. A positive attitude takes practice, it is akin to hope, and worth the effort.

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“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

How do you acquire strong self-esteem? How do you become confident? Self-reliant? Surround yourself with people who are positive. Allow them to fill the hours of your day and you will gain courage to face all those who only see the negative–the whiners, the complainers–those who want you to be miserable with them. Can’t find anyone positive? Then be your own best friend. Let the positive people from the past be your inspiration and your friends. Like Eleanor Roosevelt. They will give you courage. Let them be your teachers.

4. Reinvent Yourself

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 There’s an old film I’ve made a personal connection with and that’s Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. Here was a story about a negative, obnoxious man who, stuck in a time glitch, relived his day over and over. He disgusts the girl of his dreams and can’t figure out why she doesn’t like him. Every day he learned something new. He discarded selfishness and cultivated a positive attitude. He became philanthropic. He became a leader in the community and devoted his time to learn something new, motivated to win the love of his dream girl. What if every day was the same day and you chose to reinvent yourself? What an opportunity! What would you do? What if you were the leader and positive role model for someone else? What do you think would happen to you? Give it a try.

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Practice. Try. Read all about it. Imitate. and remember a Cindy Bruchman adage: “Follow the Good, and lead yourself.” Thank you. No, thank you, Eleanor. It’s easy to be wise when you adopt the wisdom of others.

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